Workplace politics has gotten a bad rap. It's often seen as the province of slick, self-promoting operators seeking a fast track to the top. Yet when competent people vie for a promotion, usually the one with political savvy wins. When conflict arises, the politically astute among us are able to reconcile differences. They know how to go around stated rules to get things done. They also know what to say, when and to whom. This may appear to be finesse to some and outright manipulation to others, but without such interpersonal skill high level competence often goes unnoticed.
While politics is usually seen as a negative aspect of human relations and a low-down dirty means of getting ahead, the politically adept often advance both their company and division goals while doing the same for their own careers. Politics is a great equalizer in terms of gender. Those who are good at it, whether female or male, have an edge.
Walking the “Thin Pink Line”
The biggest obstacle here for women is the tendency to worry about how they’ll be labeled. They walk what is referred to in my book as a “thin pink line.” Research indicates that how women dress, walk, and talk within work environments has a great likelihood of being noticed because women are usually the minority. In order to avoid what they perceive as career-stalling derogatory labels (e.g., ice queen, trouble-maker), women tread lightly. The truth is that at work people are going to label you anyway, so you might as well take some calculated bold steps. Keeping to the sidelines is not the way to be noticed as having leadership potential. It may save you from a few critical comments, but it isn’t going to get you anywhere. Hesitating to engage in political actions such as asking for favors and returning them, maneuvering to get a deserved raise or promotion, or getting advice because you might be bothering someone are the real career-stopping moves.
Using Politics to Your Advantage
Women often feel uncomfortable about developing favor banks, for example. Many find the quid pro quo of work a distraction from what should matter. They’d rather be judged on their merits alone, not on what they did for someone. The truth is that no one is judged on their merits alone if those merits don’t include political savvy. Workplace politics is as often constructive as it is destructive. Sometimes you can’t just wait around for a boss who “doesn’t get it,” whether male or female, to see that you deserve recognition and/or advancement. Contrary to common wisdom, though, the key to getting this message across is not assertiveness alone but knowing how to manage your career in terms of politics.
The term "secret handshake" is used to describe the hard-won, subtle admission signal given to those who manage to pass muster and finagle their way to the top of their organizations by learning how to manage the politics of their career. This kind of political acumen can be learned. For women, it’s a matter of putting aside a lot of old rules about how to get ahead by staying the course, being helpful whenever asked, and not rocking the boat. While these are sometimes good rules, they are limited in their utility.
Five Ways to Manage the Political Culture
Aside from technical competence, the most important thing is to learn how to manage the political culture of your organization. Here are a few key steps.
1. Size up the political arena where you work.
After you size it up, assess whether your style fits the organization. Are you a purist who hates politics and believes competence alone will get you where you want to go, or a team player who uses politics only to advance team agendas? Are you a street fighter who is uninhibited about politicking to advance your agendas? Or are you a maneuverer comfortable with the cut-and-thrust approach to business? If your style fits your work environment well, your chances of career success are heightened. For example, a purist might function quite effectively in a minimally politicized environment, but her chances of success or even career survival are vastly diminished in a highly political or pathological one. Street fighters are usually unwelcome in minimally political organizations. They're seen as too crafty, but they're quite comfortable in highly political ones.
It's important to assess whether your company or division is minimally, moderately, highly or pathologically political. If you're not suited to the political culture of you're company, you're not going to achieve the secret handshake.
2. Think like a chess player.
The politically adept know how to learn the lay of the land and then set about creating conditions that will increase their likelihood of success. One chief executive I interviewed recommends finding someone "who'll look after you, smooth your edges, reach out and help you grow." How do you do this? Not by currying favor. "The worst way to seek assistance is to be desperate. You're not going to rescue the boss's daughter from the railroad tracks," this CEO says. "To get noticed you have to do important things well. Then when interested people open the door for you, it's important to be aware of it and to jump through."
3. Learn how to balance people concerns with project goals.
Most people look for a solution that addresses only the immediate issue and the sooner the better. Ask yourself who will look good and who will look bad if you adopt any given solution. Is there a way to reshape the preferred solution to respond to the needs, desires and concerns of key people? You don't have to sell your soul to do this.
The key is to cleverly link your goals with those of the people who are running the show. Develop a favor bank. Human relations are based on reciprocity. It's important to know when and how to do favors and when and how to call them in. Don't be obvious about favor granting or retrieving. Keeping a tally isn't what it's all about. At its best, this political tactic is so subtle and politically sophisticated, most of us don't even notice.
4. Learn to read between the lines.
In most organizations, what's asked for isn't what's rewarded. This is something that women have learned more slowly than men. What's said often isn't really what's meant. Hint and innuendo are the modus operandi in highly and pathologically political organizations.
The secret handshake comes to those who see past the obvious, who check their assumptions at the door. Political acumen calls for strong powers of observation, a habit of assessing rather than assuming.
As one high level female executive describes it, "To be politically astute, you need to read where the trend lines are, be ahead of the game, and focus on areas that you think will be important."
5. Develop Conversational Competence
Conversations are the building blocks of daily politics. In every conversation there are choice points where you falter or shine. You have to know what to say in politically pivotal moments. Public put-downs are a case in point.
You can't play in the big leagues if you let detractors look good at your expense. Conversational steering is critical. So develop a repertoire of responses. Politics isn't the enemy, it's the tool to success in business. I devote a chapter in The Secret Handshake to this topic of conversational competence. It’s crucial to success.
There are just too many smart, capable people out there. The woman who gets ahead is usually the one who knows how to make highly placed people feel good about having her around. The good news is that with an open mind and diligent practice, you can be that woman.
About the Author
Kathleen Kelley Reardon is a professor of management at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, and the author of seven books, including The Secret Handshake: Mastering the Politics of the Business Inner Circle, It's All Politics: Winning in a World Where Hard Work and Talent Aren't Enough, and Childhood Denied: Ending the Nightmare of Child Abuse and Neglect. She has been a political analyst with The Huffington Post.